Five harmful myths about leadership – and how they’re damaging leaders’ mental health

By Andy Brown, above, author of The Emotional Overdraft

Leaders often subsidise their business success at the cost of their own physical or mental wellbeing (what I call their ‘emotional overdraft’). This leads to stress, overwhelm and burnout. It’s a crisis for business leaders everywhere. Here are some leadership myths that might be pushing you into your emotional overdraft, and what you can do about it:

Myth #1 – if your Profit & Loss is looking healthy then your business is doing well. 

The currency of an emotional overdraft is resilience. The longer and deeper you are overdrawn, the less resilient you become. What if you could see that invisible line in your P&L statement, one that represents the personal price you paid when you took on the client work yourself, skipped numerous dinners with friends or missed the school sports day because you ‘had to finish something’. Imagine if it were possible to put a number on that cost, just like you can with your marketing costs or travel expenses. Would your company still be in profit, or would you be staring at a big, fat loss?

Myth #2 – running a business is inherently stressful – it’s supposed to feel hard.

A particularly harmful myth about leadership is the prevailing belief that founders and leaders must always be struggling. And yet, I know business leaders who aren’t constantly in an emotionally overdrawn state. They sleep well at night and are brilliantly high achieving. These individuals have understood productivity Ninja Graham Allcott’s view that when you can’t get everything done (which you never can), there are three options available to you: 1. Worry and beat yourself up with stress. 2. Identify a ‘route through’ – work like a horse until you get to the end, keeping sane in the knowledge that you’re moving as productively as you can. 3. Get some help. Hire someone. Call in some favours. Delegate. After all, many hands make light work.

Awareness of emotional overdraft enables you to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It helps you make better choices to return to a healthy work/life equilibrium. A great place to start is to complete the Emotional Overdraft Self-Assessment– a free tool devised to get you thinking about the specifics of what’s causing emotional overdraft.

Myth #3 – to be successful, leaders must do everything themselves.

Leadership is a team sport. Believing you can act as an island when you’re running a company is to stampede blindly into a world of being constantly emotionally overdrawn and burnt out. If you score highly on drivers such as Trust or JFDI – which show up as ‘I only trust myself; I don’t trust others; I want to retain control’ and ‘I get stuff done; and ‘I’m a Doer’, chances are you’ll be heavily in your emotional overdraft all the time – doing jobs that you should rely on, and trust others, to do.

  •       Take the assessment – recognise where you are trying to do everything yourself. Start questioning your drivers and behaviours.
  •       Employ brilliant people – then give them full autonomy to get stuff done.
  •       Build a personal board – a group of people you trust and who want to see you succeed.
  •       Give people in your business permission to hold you to account when they recognise you slipping into behaviours that constitute ‘doing it alone’.

Myth #4 – show no weakness. Always be positive and upbeat with your teams. 

Showing no weakness is an incredibly unhealthy place to lead from. Leaders set the culture for their teams and it’s important to remember that they will model your behaviour. If you can’t or won’t show weakness, you’re modelling that failure is unacceptable. And if you’re not failing, then you’re not pushing yourself to go further, fail faster and learn.

The best leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable, in fact leaders who create the space for true vulnerability build psychologically safe work environments in which people feel welcome to be themselves. We’ve learned that when people are willing to be authentic at work, they’re also more willing to take creative risks, share their perspectives without fear of a consequence, and make valuable contributions that can only be expressed within a culture that values trust and inclusion. All of which leads to better business.

Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is impossible to ignore. It’s about showing up and being seen, even when it feels tough or when we’re worried about what people might see or think.

Myth #5 – you must be empathetic to be a good leader.

There’s nothing wrong with being empathetic, and leaders should definitely be kind. But when empathy springs from a need to be liked or a yearning to belong, that’s when it starts to be at your own expense. Misapplying empathy stops you being an effective leader. When you do something because you feel you should do it, such as work late because other people are still at their desks and you want to be supportive, you’re not helping them. Ironically, they may be desperate to go home but don’t think they can because you’re still there. What they want is direction. People can handle all sorts of pressure if they know that it’s taking them towards an important goal; your primary responsibility is to make clear what that goal is.

Andy Brown’s book The Emotional Overdraft: 10 simple changes for balancing business success and wellbeing is available to purchase on Amazon.

Follow Andy on LinkedIn.